The horrors for Saudi Arabian blogger Raif Badawi only compounded after his arrest — and for his family, who had to watch as the 32-year-old suffered an inhumane punishment for the simple "crime" of allegedly insulting Islam.
Badawi, a writer and secular activist, was arrested on a charge of "insulting Islam through electronic channels" in 2012. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes, to be carried out over 20 weeks.
Ever since his imprisonment, his wife Ensaf Haidar has mobilized international support to save him. Now she shares the horrors of the experience in her book, “Raif Badawi, The Voice of Freedom: My Husband, Our Story.”
Haidar and her three children fled to Canada from Saudi Arabia in 2014 and were granted asylum in Quebec.
“’Ensaf, I need to tell you something. Will you promise me that you’ll be brave — and not tell the children?’ ‘Yes, of course,’” she recalls from a jailhouse phone call with her husband in the prison — a call she will probably never forget.
“‘Tomorrow they’re going to start enforcing my sentence. One of the prison warders told me.’ It took me a moment to understand what he was telling me. ‘Yes, Ensaf. The first 50 lashes. I’ll get them in front of the big mosque in Jeddah.’”
“‘That’s impossible,’ I struggled to say. ‘I’m afraid so, Ensaf,’ Raif said. What was I supposed to say? What do you say when the person you love tells you that he’s going to be abused in the most horrible way? ‘Don’t worry. I’m tough,’ he said, apparently quite cheerful. ‘I can take pretty much anything. I’ll call you as soon as I can. OK?’ ‘OK,’ I replied.”
She recalls the dreadful day of the first floggings.
“I didn’t sleep that night. I calculated the time difference between Canada and Saudi Arabia — and tried to determine the moment when that terrible day for Raif would begin. When would the prison warders wake him? When would they lead him in front of the mosque in handcuffs? Had they already started?”
She unplugged the television and hid all the computers and tablets in her apartment and made her children skip school that day in order to save them from hearing about their father’s horrifying punishment.
She remembers how she felt when she saw the video someone secretly made of the lashings and posted on YouTube.
“The men I had seen in the video might as well have put me in a square and flogged me. But worst of all was the feeling of helplessness. I sat on my sofa, wrapped my arms around my legs and wept. I don’t know how long I sat there for. The phone rang several times, but I didn’t answer. How was Raif now, I wondered. How severe were the wounds that he had suffered from this brutal abuse? Had they broken his bones? The violence of the blows almost made me suspect as much. Did he get medical treatment for his wounds? If only I could have done something for him!”
Badawi initially got into trouble for creating the Saudi Liberal Network in 2008. The website was meant to be a discussion forum for seculars, like himself, who didn’t have any other platform in Saudi Arabia to voice their opinions.
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In June 2012, prosecutors arrested Badawi for operating a website deemed insulting to Islam. He was charged with criticizing the religious police and calling for “religious liberalization.”
Several rights activists, bloggers, and journalists have been sentenced to jail for being “outspoken” or allegedly inciting religious hatred in Saudi Arabia, according to non-profit Human Rights First Society.
“Saudi Arabia does not allow political or human rights associations,” notes the Human Rights Watch World Report 2013. “In December 2011, the authorities denied the Justice Center for Human Rights a license, and did not reply to requests for a license by the Saudi Human Rights Monitor, which registered in Canada in May.”
Saudi Arabia, ruled by the conservative royals of the Saud clan, is not a place with much freedom. But while the world knows much about the lack of rights of the Saudi women and the lavish lifestyles of the royalty, the fate of the rest is usually overshadowed.
Men, though allowed to move about freely, drive and interact openly, are also chained down by the kingdom’s strict policies. Freedom of expression is a big no-no irrespective of gender.
Badawi, therefore, sealed his fate when he decided to be open and expressive of his views. He questioned the interpretations of Islam, mocked the religious clerics' intent to keep the public under their thumb and was irreverent of all that the kingdom holds beyond reproach.
He nearly paid for it with his life after the first flogging, after which the other sessions were postponed because of Badawi's poor health. The floggings are due to resume.